The CFMS–MD Financial Management Leadership Awards recognize passionate, dedicated and caring medical student leaders throughout Canada who have made innovative contributions to their schools and communities.
Growing up in Thunder Bay, Niharika Shahi has witnessed firsthand the healthcare challenges faced by people from rural and remote communities of Northern Ontario. “To provide equitable healthcare all across the country,” she says, “it’s important to target the determinants of health that predispose marginalized populations to health issues in the first place, and in Northern Ontario, a lack of education is one of the main determinants.”
So Niharika, a medical student at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM), made it her mission to advocate on behalf of under-serviced populations, especially Indigenous communities. How? The first step, she believes, is to target the determinants of health such as lack of education. As a Student Senator, she helped develop a policy that required all undergraduate academic units to contain at least one course that focused on Indigenous knowledge. “This encourages cultural awareness amongst students and inclusion of Indigenous people in the local community.” She also facilitated mentorship between Indigenous medical students and Indigenous undergraduate students who are were interested in following the same path and pursue a career in healthcare.
But that was just the first step in Niharika’s efforts to create a culturally safe and inclusive community. For her, “proper training of future healthcare professionals plays a vital role in addressing healthcare gaps.” So, she partnered the Lakehead Public School Board and a group of local psychiatrists to develop and conduct a series of workshops for teachers and other school staff who work with Indigenous adolescents dealing with mental health issues. “We must train professionals working with marginalized populations to be sensitive to their needs,” she says. Not only is she a leader, but she has worked hard to foster the essential qualities of leadership within others. Once this workshop program got off the ground, she began training fellow medical students to run these sessions on their own in order to learn to provide culturally safe care.
Access and inclusivity are just two pieces of the puzzle, however. And neither of them means anything unless there are doctors in the community to put these principles into practice. “I know we have to encourage the recruitment of physicians to under-serviced Northern Ontario communities,” Shahi says. The social, economic, and geographical barriers that prevent Northern medical students from engaging in provincial initiatives, as well as those that prevent students from other Ontario medical schools from engaging in Northern initiatives, led her to help implement a rural mentorship program through the OMSA’s Northern Ontario & Rural Medicine (NORM) Committee, where she is chair of a subcommittee.
How did she get here? From very early in high school, she was interested in the field of biological sciences. “During my last year of high school, I won the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute Summer Research Contest and got the opportunity to work with world-renowned scientists on research projects relating to regional healthcare needs. This gave me hands-on experience in scientific labs, and my interest in the field only increased from there.”
Her latest research project tackled the opioid issue head-on, seeking to manage misuse in Northern Ontario by collaborating with rural family physicians to help chronic users and implement systematic testing to minimize addiction. This particular project earned her the NOSM Dean’s Summer Medical Student Research Award and the NOSM Award of Education and Scholarship.
One might wonder how she has been able to accomplish so much in her relatively nascent career. Shahi believes it’s a matter of loving what you do and focusing on how you do it: “I’ve learned to take initiative on matters that I’m passionate about, and to practice self-development—two qualities which I think are essential to medical student leadership.”
Niharika was born in India and migrated to Canada, along with her family, at the age of ten. She has called Thunder Bay home for the last twelve years. Growing up in Thunder Bay, Niharika enjoys the outdoors, especially in the limited summer months. She likes to spend quality time with her family and embrace the nature that Northwestern Ontario has to offer. Niharika also has a passion for Bhangra, a vibrant dance form from Punjab, the Northern region of India. From a young age, Niharika has fostered cultural diversity in her local community by sharing her love for dance. She has also helped formulate local dance groups displaying a variety of cultural dance forms.